Art Carney: Out of the sewer

December 14, 2014

ART CARNEY in a deceptive publicity shot for the DuPont Show of the Month presentation of "Harvey." The rabbit does not appear in the program.

ART CARNEY in a deceptive publicity shot for the DuPont Show of the Month presentation of “Harvey.” The rabbit does not appear in the program.

I recently joined a Facebook group devoted to The Honeymooners, and one of the discussion strings included a reference to the fact that Art Carney had appeared in a television production of Harvey,a play published in 1944 by Mary Chase. The play ran on Broadway for more than 1700 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945, which might have been more understandable at the time than it is now, particularly in view of the fact that one of the plays the Pulitzer jury passed over was Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
There have been many adaptations of Harvey, and the first one done for television was the production that Carney appeared in in 1958.The production was performed live as part of a series known as The DuPont Show of the Month. The story focuses on Elwood Dowd, played by Carney, a man who lives on a large inheritance and shares his home with his sister, Veta Louise Simmons, and her unmarried daughter, Myrtle Mae. Although Dowd for a large part of his adult life was a conventional man who was widely admired in his small home town, he has now become notorious for claiming as his best friend, and introducing to anyone who will listen, an invisible six-foot-one rabbit named Harvey. His behavior disrupts Veta’s efforts to maintain some standing in society and Myrtle Mae’s hopes of attracting a beau. They attribute Harvey’s “existence” to Dowd’s habitual drinking. Veta’s agitation is worsened by the fact that she imagines she has seen Harvey once or twice herself. Goaded by Myrtle Mae, Veta decides to take decisive action and have Elwood committed for treatment of mental illness, and the action of the play is generated by that decision.

MARION LORNE, left, and ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY in a scene from "Harvey."

MARION LORNE, left, and ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY in a scene from “Harvey.”

Although this play was performed live, there is a kinescope of it which is available on the Internet. I saw the show when it was broadcast, and I have been eager to see it again, so I recently bought the DVD. James Stewart’s performance as Elwood in the 1950 film version is difficult to surpass, but this TV version has a life of its own. The casting and the performances were admirable. Carney, who sheds his Ed Norton persona, plays the role in a manner more understated than Stewart’s, and that’s intriguing in its own way because if Elwood Dowd is nothing else he is content with his life. Veta is played by Marion Lorne, who was a stage actress for fifty years before she became one of the most popular character actors on television in the 1950s and 1960s. She was particularly well known for her work on Mr. Peepers, The Gary Moore Show, and Bewitched. She specialized in playing a bumbling figure who couldn’t form a coherent sentence and who could be upset by almost anything that departed from the normal. Miss Kelly, a nurse at the sanitarium where Veta wants Elwood confined, is played by 25-year-old Elizabeth Montgomery, who would later work with Lorne on Bewitched. Myrtle Mae is played by 32-year-old Charlotte Rae. The wonderful Fred Gwynne has a brief but effective and pivotal turn as E.J. Loffgrin, a cab driver who gives Veta a dose of reality concerning the likely consequences of forcing Elwood back to “normal.”

ART CARNEY and ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY in a scene from "Harvey."

ART CARNEY and ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY in a scene from “Harvey.”


Jack Weston, one of the most versatile actors of his era, plays Wilson, the amorous orderly at the sanitarium. Loring Smith, a fine stage actor, plays Dr. Chumley, director of the sanitarium, and the great character actress Ruth White plays the sympathetic Mrs. Chumley.
For a kinescope, the quality of the DVD is not bad, and it has some historical interest because it includes some elaborate promotional ads for DuPont as well as commercials for Piels beer (with Burt and Harry) and Parliament cigarettes.

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One Response to “Art Carney: Out of the sewer”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Mr. Peepers? Oh, my. That’s a blast from the past. I hadn’t thought of that show in decades, but thanks to the magic of YouTube, I just watched the first episode.

    I’ve heard the word “kinescope,” of course, but didn’t really understand how it worked. Now, I have a better grasp of it. Not only that, I found one of my first television memories, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, was preserved that way.

    As for Harvey, I think he’s entered our collective unconscious. Back in 1995 or so, I happened to be down in the Islands. I ran into a fellow who actually was single-handing, but who claimed to have a first mate and navigator on board. No one ever saw him, and finally someone happened to ask the fellow the name of his mysterious crew. “Harvey,” he said, and about half the people in the room laughed.

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